Trump Looks Ready to Outdo ‘Deporter-in-Chief’ Obama

ICE agents rounded up hundreds of undocumented immigrants in an ‘enforcement surge’—and they appear to be casting a wider net than before.

Stephanie Keith / Reuters

Last week, for America’s undocumented immigrants, President Trump’s crackdown began.

Over the course of several days, the Department of Homeland Security conducted an “enforcement surge” in the biggest cities throughout the country—New York, Los Angeles, Chicago—as well as smaller localities, arresting hundreds of undocumented immigrants and then moving to deport them as quickly as possible.

According to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), federal agents picked up more than 680 people. That in and of itself isn’t necessarily shocking. Though the raids generated protests in L.A. and significant media coverage, they aren’t a first by any stretch—during the Obama administration, ICE agents targeted women and children fleeing violence in Central America, and arrested more than 2,000 people in one nationwide operation. Immigrant-rights activists nicknamed Obama the Deporter in Chief because of the millions of people his DHS deported.

But by the final years of his presidency, the Obama administration had changed its enforcement priorities, and insisted it was only targeting undocumented immigrants convicted of serious crimes (in the administration’s view, getting a DUI or using a fake Social Security number counted as serious).

Last week’s raids—along with new data on the enforcement surge that ICE released Monday afternoon—show that things are changing, and fast. On Jan. 25, the president signed an executive order that gave ICE’s top brass radically different directions as to whom they should target for deportation. Instead of focusing on people with criminal convictions, the executive order directed them to detain people suspected of breaking any state or federal law, including immigration laws. A number of analysts have concluded that this means more than 8 million undocumented immigrants are now top priority for deportation, as the Los Angeles Times detailed.

That said, ICE has still been telling reporters that its enforcement focus is on convicted criminals. And President Trump tweeted as much on Feb. 12:

The numbers indicate that’s not entirely true. Secretary John Kelly, who heads DHS, released a statement on Feb. 13 saying about 75 percent of the people apprehended had been convicted of crimes. That, of course, means that about 170 of the people arrested last week didn’t have criminal convictions. And this is new.

“It does appear that the Trump administration is more vigorously enforcing immigration law, casting a wider net to remove more illegal or criminal immigrants who would have been safe from deportation under President Obama,” said David Inserra, who analyzes homeland-security issues for the conservative Heritage Foundation.

Though ICE says its enforcement efforts only targeted convicted criminals, gang members, and people who had already received deportation orders, the data makes it clear that when ICE agents encountered other undocumented immigrants, they apprehended them as well. And this has many immigration attorneys and activists furious—and worried.

“There was definitely a strong enforcement component going on in the Obama administration,” said Ben Johnson, who heads the American Immigration Lawyers Association. “But at least it had the feature of having targeted results. The difference here seems to me they go into these enforcement actions with a particular intent, but they’re not committed to the results matching the intent.”

“They’re OK with the fact that if we catch a lot of people who don’t fit the profile of the people we’re going after, that will be OK,” he continued. “That’s the difference between the targeted enforcement action and a sweep.”

ICE adamantly argues that reporters and activists should not use the word “sweep” to describe what happened last week.

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“Reports of ICE checkpoints and sweeps are false, dangerous, and irresponsible,” the agency said in a release about last week’s activity. “These reports create panic and put communities and law-enforcement personnel in unnecessary danger. Any groups falsely reporting such activities are doing a disservice to those they claim to support.”

But Johnson argues that as long as ICE agents are detaining people who haven’t been convicted of crimes, then “sweep” is the only appropriate term to use.

Others say initial media reports have overstated the difference between Obama and Trump.

“The biggest difference is that the press is covering them negatively,” said Matthew Kolken, an immigration lawyer based in Buffalo, of the Trump raids. “Obama spent his eight years saying he was deporting serious criminals—and he was deporting people with traffic tickets and kids with deportation orders that were entered without a lawyer, and the press just allowed him to lie.”

That sentiment was echoed by Charles Kuck, a lawyer based in Atlanta. While he noted that Trump is deporting more people without serious criminal convictions (or any at all), he said that in the early years of Obama’s presidency, his approach was similar.

“All people remember about Obama is the last two years were nice,” Kuck said. “They didn’t deport parents. People get used to that. But if you go back to 2013, it was horrible. The same type of fear gripped the communities. The only difference here is the rhetoric of Trump on top of the actions of ICE scare people more.”

Another change? Immigrants now are increasingly likely to refuse to let ICE agents into their homes.

Online postings from a forum for ICE agents—postings that multiple attorneys flagged for The Daily Beast—indicate that some agents have noticed immigrants are less likely to open the door when they knock.

“The days of knocking on doors has been long gone,” one user wrote on Feb. 11.

“Yeah, my sup sent us an email saying we should be knocking on doors more,” another user replied. “I laughed…”

“I got 10 hours to arrest an illegal alien;” a third replied. “when you come out that house whether by vehicle stop or consensual encounter on the street you are coming with me.”

Immigrant-rights groups and the ACLU have been widely circulating “Know Your Rights” social-media postings, and many groups host regular training sessions on what immigrants can do if ICE shows up.

“The Constitution covers everybody,” Kuck said. “Those pesky Amendments? They belong to everybody. Every person is covered, not just citizens.”

But Trump’s enforcement surge still has immigrant communities frightened.

“It seems to me, from what I’m hearing, that they’re arresting everybody now for simple no-license offenses,” said Dan Ortiz, a Georgia immigration attorney.

“Overall,” he added, “since Trump took office, everyone’s scared.”